Rob Ricafort isn’t going to forget that day.
It was September 23, 2017. The University of the Philippines (UP) Fighting Maroons were going to play the mighty De La Salle University Green Archers in the main match of a double header at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Earlier, his lawyers were able to secure a temporary restraining order on the UAAP’s ruling that Ricafort not suit up because he was turning 25 during the scholastic year (but not during the men’s basketball tournament).
During UP’s customary pre-game ritual, head coach Bo Perasol assigns the prayer leader by the jersey number. Yet on that day, everyone seemed to grasp the moment. “Rob, you lead the prayer,” quite a few people enthused.
Ricafort obliged but in his mind wondered what to say. Here’s a 24-year old kid who bounced around, made some bad decisions in his young life, and found a lifeline at UP. When the UAAP Eligibility Board initially denied his slot on the team, Ricafort found himself depressed beyond belief.
“Just when I started to straighten out my life, basketball, which is like a lifeline for me, was being taken away,” Rob recalled himself thinking.
During his prayer, Ricafort likened UP’s match against the defending champions like David against Goliath. It was like that for himself, too. Battling a drug addiction (he has long since been rehabilitated) and all sorts of problems a young man shouldn’t have to go through in the best of their growing up years, Ricafort had found himself bouncing back. “I had a bunch of Goliaths for problems,” he said. “But we can be Davids too.”
The Fighting Maroons, if you want to use a biblical analogy, slew the Goliath, a 98-87 triumph, that was the highlight of the season for UP. And when Ricafort was called by Perasol to enter the game at the 7:54 mark of the second period – yes, Ricafort knows what time it was so well – he told himself: “Don’t look at the crowd. Control your emotions.”
Rob couldn’t believe he was checking into the game. He had long wished to play ball as he was a teammate of Kiefer Ravena in Ateneo. He didn’t make it and he moved to San Beda College, La Salle, to the US, and even suited up for two months for National University (NU) in a non-UAAP league before finding a home in UP.
“The first time I got the ball (off a feed by Paul Desiderio), I saw Ben Mbala come up to meet me and I just threw up the ball and missed,” recalled Ricafort. “The second time, Paul once more found me and this time it was Andrei Caracut chasing me and he slipped. I laid the ball in and tried to act as if nothing had really happened. But my heart was swelling. My mind was racing and my heart was pounding.”
Ricafort scored only two points and issued one assist in 10 minutes of play. “It was a good 10 minutes that I will never forget,” he thought back.
One month and 18 days later, on November 11 to be exact. The Fighting Maroons took down NU, 106-81, to give themselves a sliver of hope of forging a playoff for the fourth and last Final Four seat. As fate for have it, the Far Eastern University Tamaraws defeated a hobbled Adamson University squad squelching UP’s dreams.
At the time of the Adamson-FEU match, the UP team had dinner at the nearby North Park restaurant monitoring the game. Everyone was rooting for Adamson to win. By midway through the fourth and final quarter, it was evident that FEU wasn’t going to fade. With two minutes to go and more and more likely a Tamaraw victory, the Fighting Maroons got up and gave one another hugs and back slaps. Some pictures were taken and words of encouragement passed around.
“It didn’t sink it yet that our season was over,” thought Rob. “We were still dealing with the high of winning against NU. But it was our last.”
Just as he did in his UAAP debut, Ricafort finished with two points – in a win. He only suited up for eight matches with an average of four minutes of action averaging 0.5 points and 0.9 rebounds. Hardly any stats to set the world on fire.
However, you have to consider the roller=coaster ride of emotions that eroded his confidence. After the 20-day TRO had elapsed, Ricafort and his UP lawyers as well as the league underwent a marathon session to finalize the decision on whether to allow Ricafort to play. The judge, of course, made a decision in Ricafort’s favor.
“At first, people would tell me everything would be all right, but I had to worry about UP forfeiting its wins where I played. And, of course, there was my mindset and confidence that really took a toll on me. It was very difficult,” he said.
The kid who had played so well before that he even got some notices from US schools (when he moved to America) was a shell of his former self. “Coach Bo (Perasol, and my teammates as well as UP management) really stuck to me and gave me all the encouragement I needed. But it’s hard when you do not know if you’ll ever play again,” he said.
However, more than basketball, Ricafort has his life back. The demons that haunted him during his younger days are now at bay. He’s graduating in a couple of years and has most recently applied for the PBA D-League Draft.
“I didn’t get to show what I could really do, but I am grateful for the chance. How many people get to play for UP and in the UAAP? Plus, I like to think that I was a part of something good — a team that gave UP students and alumni something to cheer for. And well, I’ll finish my schooling and work on getting better to try for the PBA. Everything that has happened – including the bad – I would not trade it for anything else. Because I learned from it. It was hard and maybe even a bit later than I hoped. But what is important I have hope and I have put my life back on track.”
And now, he’s got another Goliath (fighting for a D-League slot and finding a team) to slay.
“’Game on’ is all I can say,” Ricafort said.
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